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A Science Show Debate: How the Stasi Staged Revisionism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 April 2020

Till Düppe*
Département des sciences économiques, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Canada


In the early years of the East German Democratic Republic, in particular after Khrushchev's speech breaking with Stalinism, there was hope among leading economists that new reforms would usher in a truly democratic socialist economy. The newly-founded Institute for Economics at the Academy of Sciences, under the leadership of Friedrich Behrens, put forward ideas that the party soon labelled ‘revisionist’. This article reconstructs the dismantling of this group of reformist economists using detailed documents of the secret police, the Stasi. I demonstrate how the Stasi staged a show debate analogous to the known show trials under Stalin. In spite of its forced character the show debate allowed the party to both resist reform and claim their policies to be a scientific undertaking.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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1 Anonymous, 40 Jahre politischer Witz in der DDR, (last visited 9 Apr. 2020).

2 For a general introduction to the Stasi, see Kowalczuk, Ilko-Sascha, Stasi konkret. Überwachung und Repression in der DDR (München: Beck, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gieseke, Jens, The History of the Stasi: East Germany's Secret Police, 1945–1990 (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2015)Google Scholar. Regarding the transformation of the Stasi during the thaw, see Engelmann, Roger and Schumann, Silke, ‘Der Ausbau des Überwachungsstaates: Der Konflikt Ulbricht-Wollweber und die Neuausrichtung des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der DDR 1957’, Vierteljahrsheft für Zeitgeschichte, 43, 2 (1995)Google Scholar. The present article draws mainly from the Stasi archive Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 31/33, 10178 Berlin (thereafter BStU, MfS), as well as from the party archive Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Finckensteinallee 63, 12205 Berlin, Postfach 450569, 12175 Berlin (thereafter SAPMO-BArch).

3 The thaw being a standard topic in contemporary historiography, the literature is vast. One classic is Herzberg, Guntolf, Anpassung und Aufbegehren: die Intelligenz der DDR in den Krisenjahren 1956/58 (Berlin: Christoph Links, 2006), 453–73Google Scholar. For a recent contribution to the framing of this change as a renegotiation of the socialist utopia, see Kolar, Pavel, ‘Die Feinde der Partei’, in Der Poststalinismus: Ideologie und Utopie einer Epoche (Köln: Böhlau, 2016), 201–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Dogmatism indeed had been an on-going subject of concern among both the socialist intelligentsia and the party since the foundation of the East German Democratic Republic. See SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83442.

5 For an overview, see Labedz, Leopold, ed., Revisionism. Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962)Google Scholar. See more recently Kolar, Poststalinismus, 223–37.

6 Kolar emphasised the link between historical determinism and scientificity (thus anti-dogmatism) as one of the characteristic elements of the post-Stalinist historicity. Kolar, Poststalinismus, 7.

7 Behrens (1909–80) was one of the first active socialist economists after the war. He built up the economics department in Leipzig where he was friends with the philosopher Ernst Bloch and the literary scholar Werner Krauss. There he had been attacked for ‘objectivism’, but his career continued up until earning the national medal in 1954 and receiving a call to run East Germany's statistical office (Zentralverwaltung für Statistik). See Feige, Hans-Uwe, ‘Die SED und der “bürgerliche Objektivismus” 1949/1950’, Deutschland Archiv, 10 (1995), 1074–83Google Scholar. For more biographical background see his papers ‘Nachlass Behrens’ (thereafter NLB), in Archiv der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jägerstr. 22/23, 10117 Berlin (thereafter ABBAW). See also the collection of essays edited by Müller, Eva, et al. eds., ‘Ich habe einige Dogmen angetastet’: Werk und Wirken von Fritz Behrens (Leipzig: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Sachsen, 1999)Google Scholar. For a presentation of Behrens's work as an economist see Caldwell, Peter C., ‘Productivity, Value, and Plan: Fritz Behrens and the Economics of Revisionism in the German Democratic Republic’, History of Political Economy, 32, 1 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See Behrens, Fritz and Benary, Arne, Zur ökonomischen Theorie und ökonomischen Politik der Übergangsperiode (Berlin: Die Wirtschaft, 1956)Google Scholar, unpublished document, private archive of Gisela Eckstein, Grünau, Berlin. The question of ‘processuality’ is a key element of the post-Stalinist discourse, according to Kolar. See Kolar, Poststalinismus, 14.

9 Günther Ulisch lists forty-nine institute members, of which there were at least four without party membership. See his report in BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2-1, 8, 165.

10 For Bichtler see mainly BStU, MfS AIM 3238-71; for Ulisch see mainly BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62. Bichtler had been ‘horde leader’ at the Hitler Youth, and then was trained at the Institute for Social Sciences at the CC. Ulisch had studied at Humboldt University and was one of Kohlmey's first student assistants in 1954. There were several other informants who reported less frequently (GI Anna, GI El(l)i, GI Gisela, and GHI Toback), who have not been identified. See their reports in BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57, BStU, MfS AIM 3238-71.

11 They worked under their superior major, Paul Kienberg, the department head of HA-V in charge of ‘state apparatus, culture, churches and underground’. None of them were trained economists.

12 Though one might expect differences between the handwritten minutes, the reports written for the CC by Bichtler or Kampfert, and the reports written in reported speech by the Stasi officers after meeting the informants (Treffberichte), this does not appear to be the case. They are consistent and complementary. The principal Stasi records are the Benary files, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57, 1 and 2. Most records that concern the party are to be found in one file only (SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342), which must have been created ex-post to collect all information about Behrens (possibly by Kampfert). The actual archival surprise is that in the official protocols of the meetings at the Academy of Sciences there is hardly any information about the debate. See ABBAW: NSchn, 680.

13 The literature on what came to be known the revisionism debate against Behrens and Benary began almost immediately after the debate took place; see Jänicke, Martin, Der dritte Weg: Die antistalinistische Opposition gegen Ulbricht seit 1953 (Köln: Neuer deutscher Verlag, 1964), 104–10Google Scholar. Without access to the archives, the published materials were treated by Becker, Susanne and Dierking, Heiko, Die Herausbildung der Wirtschaftswissenschaften in der Frühphase der DDR (Köln: Wissenschaft und Politik, 1989), 407–89Google Scholar. For other studies based on published materials see Krause, Günther, ‘Die Revisionismus Debatte in der DDR’, Arbeitsberichte des Frankfurter Instituts für Transformationsstudien, 2 (1996)Google Scholar, and Kieslich, Lothar, Kommunisten gegen Kommunisten: die Intellektuellenpolitik der SED im Umfeld des XX. Parteitags der KPdSU und des Ungarn-Aufstands (Wetzlar: Kletsmeier, 1998)Google Scholar. The party archives (SAPMO-BArch) were first used in Steiner, Helmut, ‘Das Akademie-Institut für Wirtschaftswissenschaften im Widerstreit wissenschaftlicher, ideologischer und politischer Auseinandersetzungen’, Sitzungsberichte der Leibniz-Sozietät, 36 (2000)Google Scholar, and then in Caldwell, ‘Productivity’, which also used the Behrens archives (ABBAW NLB). The most complete study using the party archives is Herzberg, Anpassung. This article, apart from its epistemological approach, adds the important perspectives from the Stasi archives (BStU, MfS) and the personal views of contemporary witnesses, in particular Heinz Paragenings (a debate participant interviewed in Treptow-Köpenick, Berlin, 5 June 2018), Hannamaria Loschinski (Behrens's daughter, interviewed in Petershagen-Eggersdorf, 4 June 2018) and Gisela Eckstein (Benary's former wife, interviewed in Grünau, Berlin, 6 June 2018).

14 A show debate can obviously be considered as a form of censorship, rather than an alternative to it. Whatever terms one prefers, the debate did pave the way for how censorship would later work in East Germany, that is, on the one hand through self-censorship, and on the other, through the accepted notion of planning of research. Both minimised the apparent conflict with an open debate culture and with a constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression. ‘There is no censorship here’, Ulbricht said at the thirtieth Plenum of the CC. See Herzberg, Anpassung, 463. On censorship, see Darnton, Robert, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014)Google Scholar.

15 Though the transition from show trials to show debates corresponds with the shift from open violence to more subtle state force, show debates did have their precedent in Stalin's regime; see Pollock, Ethan, Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Till Düppe and Sarah Joly-Simard, ‘Stalin's Pluralism: How Anti-Dogmatism Serves Tyranny’, Research in the History and Methodology of Economic Thought, forthcoming.

16 Heinz Paragenings. Interview by author. Treptow-Köpenick, Berlin, 5 June 2018.

17 For a complete list see ABBAW: Zentralinstitut für Wirtschaftswissenschaften, file 284. In addition to Behrens's group, there was the department for the Political Economy of Socialism led by Gunther Kohlmey, the department for the Political Economy of Capitalism led by Johann-Lorenz Schmidt and the department for the History of Economic Doctrines led by Herbert Meißner. Most of the young staff were still writing dissertations. Elsewhere, I have described this generation born around 1930 as those sharing the experiences constitutive for believing in the project of the East German state; see Düppe, Till, ‘The Generation of the GDR: Economists at the Humboldt University of Berlin Caught between Loyalty and Relevance’, History of the Human Sciences, 30, 3 (2017).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 See Steiner, ‘Akademie-Institut’, 110–115; ABBAW: NLB, file 77.

19 Ibid., 113.

20 Ibid., 115.

21 5 May 1956, ABBAW: NLB, file 268.

22 See Kardelj, Edvard, ‘Socialist Democracy in Yugoslavia: Lecture Delivered in Oslo, Norway, September 1954’, in Farrell, Robert, ed., Jugoslavia and the Soviet Union 1948–1956: An Analysis with Documents (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1956)Google Scholar.

23 Walter Ulbricht, ‘Über den XX. Parteitag der Kommunistischen Partei der Sowjetunion’, Neues Deutschland, 4 Mar. 1956, 3.

24 See e.g. SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 J IV 2-2-549, 12–14.

25 Behrens, Fritz, ‘Zum Problem der Ausnutzung ökonomischer Gesetze in der Übergangsperiode’, Wirtschaftswissenschaft, 3. Sonderheft (1957), 125Google Scholar.

26 Ibid., 122.

27 Reported by Ulisch GI ‘Walter’, BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2-1, 99.

28 Reported by Zieschang, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-2, 147.

29 See Hoeft, Brigitte, ed., Der Prozess gegen Walter Janka und andere: eine Dokumentation (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1990)Google Scholar. On show trials in East Germany, see Beckert, Rudi, Die erste und letzte Instanz: Schau- und Geheimprozesse vor dem Obersten Gericht der DDR (Goldbach: Keip, 1995)Google Scholar.

30 For a study of the overall factors that helped Ulbricht to maintain power, see Granville, Johanna, ‘Ulbricht in October 1956: Survival of the Spitzbart during Destalinization’, Journal of Contemporary History, 41, 3 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Connelly, John, ‘Ulbricht and the Intellectuals’, Contemporary European History, 6, 3 (1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Herzberg, Anpassung.

31 See Steiner, ‘Akademie-Institut’, 120.

32 Puhlmann to Behrens, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342, 38–9.

33 Secretariat minutes, SAPMO-BArch, DY30 56214, 3.

34 See report Ulisch, GI ‘Walter’, BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2, 55–61.

35 Report in SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342, 47.

36 GI ‘Elli’, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1.

37 Report in SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342, 48.

38 Secretariat minutes, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30-J VI 2-2-522, 7.

39 24 Jan., SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342.

40 Benary file, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 17; see also Ulisch's, GI ‘Walter’, reports in BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2, 18.

41 Zwischenbericht, 24 Jan. 1957, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 80.

42 Hannamaria Loschinski. Interview by author. Petershagen-Eggersdorf, 4 June 2018.

43 BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 17.

44 Ibid., 16.

45 See Benary file, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57, 126. In addition, the Stasi identified a connection with Kurt Vieweg, in particular with his assistant Marga Langendorf, who was arrested for a revisionist agricultural reform programme (BStU, MfS AOP 468-59-4). Vieweg tried to hire Benary as an assistant. For the entire Stasi case against Vieweg, see Scholz, Michael F., Bauernopfer der deutschen Frage: Der Kommunist Kurt Vieweg im Dschungel der Geheimdienste (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1997)Google Scholar.

46 Benary file, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 136.

47 Ulbricht, Walter, Grundfragen der Politik der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands: Referat auf der 30. Tagung des Zentralkommittees der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands am 30. Januar 1957 (Berlin: Dietz-Verlag, 1957), 50Google Scholar.

48 Ibid., 53.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., 72.

51 Immediately after Ulbricht's speech hardliners Robert Naumann and Alfred Lemmnitz, the president of the Higher School for Economics, were the first to blow the horn of the revisionism campaign to come. See Naumann, Robert, ‘Gegen die Gefahr der Entwicklung revisionistischer Anschauungen auf dem Gebiet der Politischen Ökonomie’, Einheit: Zeitschrift für Theorie und Praxis des wissenschaftlichen Sozialismus, 2 (1957), 157–67Google Scholar; Lemmnitz, Alfred, ‘Über die “Administration” und die “Ökonomie” im Sozialismus und in der Übergangsperiode’, Deutsche Finanzwirtschaft, 11, 2 (1957), 81–9Google Scholar.

52 Kießling, 5 Feb. 1957, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 123.

53 Benary statement, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342, 155.

54 In Ulisch's report, GI ‘Walter’, in BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2, 79.

55 Ibid., 89.

56 Bichtler KP ‘Bischak’, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 160.

57 An ‘Aussprache’ was an informal meeting of one or several party officials, usually the party secretary of the party-group with one or several party members. It was to talk things over face-to-face, showing openness for the point of view of everyone involved, but in fact was an effective tool to exert informal pressure on party members.

58 Zieschang ‘Aussprache’, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 120.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 112. Ernst Wollweber, head of the Stasi, also received a separate report about this meeting (SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 47840, 6 Mar.), in which the programme was referred to as the second booklet – which thus might have been identical.

61 Heinz Paragenings. Interview with author; Gisela Eckstein. Interview with author. Grünau, Berlin, 6 June 2018.

62 In addition to Zieschang's testimony, Captain Kießling gained another point by organising, on 31 Jan., a special interrogation of Bernhard Steinberger in prison about Behrens (BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57, 162). Between his release from prison in the Soviet Union in October 1955 and renewed imprisonment because of involvement in the Harich group, Steinberger was an assistant in Behrens's department. Steinberger mentioned that they would put Behrens in charge of economic affairs once their democratic reforms, without Ulbricht, were put into place. Behrens would not have liked to be associated with their entire programme, but this mention could clearly stoke the ad-hominem attacks in the debate.

63 Kießling report, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 148.

64 Gisela Eckstein. Interview with author.

65 Report ‘Elli’, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-2, 182.

66 Ibid., 189–94.

67 KP Bischak, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 201.

68 Ibid.

69 Heinz Paragenings. Interview with author.

70 Kießling, 12 Mar. 1957, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-1, 185.

71 Walter report, BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62, 138.

72 Benary file, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-2, 28.

73 Ibid., 29.

74 Party group statement, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342, 97.

75 See the entire issue of Wirtschaftswissenschaft, 3. Sonderheft (1957). Comparing the printed but unshipped versions of fall 1956 (Behrens and Benary, Übergangsperiode) and the published version, I did not find evidence of any revisions.

76 Behrens, Fritz, ‘Die Planung und Leitung der Volkswirtschaft: eine Stellungnahme’, Wirtschaftswissenschaft, 1 (1958), 31–8Google Scholar; see also SAPMO-BArch, DY30 47889. The other statements were Behrens, Fritz, ‘Erklärung des Genossen Prof. Dr. Fritz Behrens’, Neuer Weg, 15, 9 (1960), 650–1Google Scholar; Behrens, Fritz, Ware, Wert und Wertgesetz: Kritische und selbstkritische Betrachtungen zur Werttheorie im Sozialismus (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1961)Google Scholar.

77 Bichtler, Karl and Zieschang, Kurt, ‘Revisionistische Konzeption oder einzelner Fehler?Wirtschaftswissenschaft, 1 (1958), 3950Google Scholar.

78 See the reports by Meißner, head of the department of the history of economic doctrines, as GI ‘Rolf Hansen’ (BStU, MfS AOP 2540-63, I and II), in particular his September 1961 letter about the stagnation of economic science that aptly describes the problem of self-censorship (Ibid., 190). See also the letter from Harry Nick to Behrens that testifies to the same frustration among economists at the institute, 10 Apr. 1965, ABBAW: NLB, file 324. See also further reports by Ulisch in BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-2-3. The importance of the debate as the beginning of self-censorship in East Germany has been noted in the literature, in particular by Steiner, ‘Akademie-Institut’.

79 Secretariat minutes, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 J IV 2-2-549, 12–4.

80 Ibid.

81 Paragenings later had a comeback in academia, receiving a PhD in 1969 in a more applied field. The party could forgive, if it wanted to.

82 See Kohlmey, Gunther, ‘Über politische und wissenschaftliche Verantwortung in der marxistischen wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Forschungsarbeit: eine Stellungnahme’, Wirtschaftswissenschaft, 3 (1958), 367–70Google Scholar. For his own later account of this text, see ‘Sozialismus – Utopie als Arbeitsaufgabe: Nachdenken über einen Nachlaßband von Fritz Behrens’, Utopie kreativ, 21/22 (1992), 88–94. Kohlmey's role in the context of the debate described in this article is complex and would require a separate treatment. Sufficient to say that putting him on equal terms with Behrens does not do justice to his role; see Steiner, Helmuth, ‘Prof. Dr. Gunther Kohlmey im Fadenkreuz der Revisionismus-Kampagne’, Utopie kreativ, 33/34 (1996), 82–6Google Scholar.

83 Next to Schirdewan and Oelßner, Wollweber, the head of the Stasi, and Ziller, the economy secretary, were also victims of this final attack against revisionist factions of the party. See Schirdewan, Karl, Ein Jahrhundert Leben: Erinnerungen und Visionen (Berlin: Edition Ost, 1997)Google Scholar.

84 Bichtler file, BStU, MfS AIM 3238-71, 12.

85 Ulisch file, BStU, MfS AIM 2981-62-1, 151.

86 See Herzberg, Anpassung; Sanderson, Paul, ‘East German Economists and the Path to the “New Economic System” in the German Democratic Republic’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 23, 2 (1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

87 See SAPMO-BArch, DY30 56227, SAPMO-BArch, DY30 56244, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342.

88 Letter, ABBAW: NLB, file 171.

89 See letter in SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 83342. Roesler speculates that Wolfgang Berger, personal referent of Ulbricht and one of Behrens's first students in Leipzig, might have saved Behrens from industry. See Müller, Dogmen, page.

90 Hannamaria Loschinski. Personal interview. See also GI ‘Walter’, 9 Aug. 1957, BStU, MfS HA IX 11 ZUV 76-6, 163.

91 Family statement, ABBAW: NLB, file 326.

92 1 Jul. 1959, BStU, MfS HA IX 11 ZUV 76-6, 92.

93 Behrens file, BStU, MfS HAXX 9-23, 99. For the speech, see Behrens, Fritz, ‘Kritik der politischen Ökonomie und ökonomische Theorie des Sozialismus’, in Euchner, Walter und Schmidt, Alfred, eds., Kritik der politischen Ökonomie heute: 100 Jahre ‘Kapital’ (Frankfurt a. M.: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1968), 288–99Google Scholar.

94 This work would be published after the fall of the Berlin Wall by his daughter; see Behrens, Fritz, Abschied von der sozialen Utopie (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1992)Google Scholar; Steiner, Helmut, ‘Fritz Behrens: Lebensbilanz eines sozialistischen Wissenschaftlers’, Deutschland-Archiv, 11 (1992), 1160–8Google Scholar; see also the fictitious interview with Behrens that Behrens wrote himself, and his diaries, ABBAW: NLB, file 326, 285.

95 The first references in the West go back to Melvin Croan, ‘East German Revisionism: The Spectre and the Reality’, in Labedz, ed., Revisionism.

96 Benary file, BStU, MfS AOP 1012-57-2, 148.

97 Gisela Eckstein. Interview with author.

98 See letter Kampfert, SAPMO-BArch, DY 30 J IV 2-2-696, 15–60; Behrens, ‘Erklärung’; Benary, Arne, ‘Erklärung des Genossen Arne Benary’, Neuer Weg, 9 (1960), 651–2Google Scholar.

99 Letter Benary, ABBAW: NLB, file 247-1.

100 Ibid., 652.

101 Kampfert report, SAPMO-BArch, DY30 48131.

102 Criminal record in BStU, MfS AS 152-74.

103 Heinz Paragenings. Interview with author.

104 Ibid.

105 This might be the origin of what Yurchak has identified as the ‘hyper-normalisation’ for late socialism. Yurchak, Alexei, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; see also Düppe, ‘Generation’.

106 Hannamaria Loschinski. Interview with author.

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